Despite being widely panned as a “sign of the apocalypse,” TLC’s redneck reality show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo trounced Fox’s coverage of the Republican National Convention and was recently renewed for a second season. Interestingly, the comedic treatment of pregnancy and obesity on the show dovetailed with presidential wrangles over women’s health. With election week upon us, the time seems especially ripe for considering the pleasures and pitfalls of the show’s gendered health discourses.
My clip highlights what I find both enjoyable and troubling about the series. It depicts 6-year-old Alana (a.k.a. Honey Boo Boo) and her family joking about pregnancy’s unseemly side effects—from hemorrhoids popping out to a woman “‘ew’-ing” herself. The segment culminates with pregnant, 17-year-old Anna peeing unexpectedly during a fit of family laughter. On the one hand, it’s refreshing to see headstrong women and girls having fun together, supporting each other, relating openly and honestly with each other, and taking pride in their love of food and full-figured frames. On the other hand, the show’s formal structures wage an incredibly misogynistic war on women. From sound effects that exaggerate their bodily eruptions to camera angles that emphasize their protruding bellies; from editing patterns that highlight the pee-stained horrors wrought by “pregnant” bladders to frequent cuts to Alana expounding on the “disgusting” nature of “birthin’ babies,” pregnant and fat female bodies are repeatedly held up as objects of scorn and ridicule. Thus, while Honey Boo Boo carves out a much-needed cultural space for dialogue about women’s health, it also problematically casts teen pregnancy and obesity as the gross and laughable side effects of “white trash” women and girls.
When Governor Romney was recently asked on Live! With Kelly and Michael if he preferred Honey Boo Boo or Snooki, he explained his allegiance to Snooki by way of her newly svelte figure. “Look how tiny she’s gotten,” he exclaimed. Happily, Honey Boo Boo’s fun and feisty females throw such sexist drivel about appropriate forms of femininity into sharp relief. But even though TLC’s gendered politics may sometimes be pleasurable, we mustn’t forget that the economically savvy network—not unlike some political pundits—is laughing all the way to the bank at women’s expense.
Humor's Potential for Change?
The clip you chose is great and for whatever reason, I couldn’t help but think of comedian Jenny McCarthy’s infamous book on pregnancy “Belly Laughs: The Naked Truth About Pregnancy and Childbirth.” While McCarthy is undeniably thin and beautiful and she undoubtedly presents an appropriate physical form of femininity, there is a certain “white trash” aesthetic that has always seemed to accompany her. McCarthy’s book gained popularity because it exposed a side of pregnancy that women did not discuss in public, and like the women of Honey boo Boo’s world, McCarthy celebrated a side of womanhood few do. Whereas McCarthy is a comedian attempting to make readers laugh, and while you raise the oft-asked question of humor – are we laughing with you or at you? – I still wonder if there is something more, something potentially transgressive about the women of Honey Boo Boo. Isn’t there a certain power on the margins inherent to the use of humor, even if you’re the butt of the joke?
Thanks for your comments, Rachel! You're right on about the connections between Belly Laughs & Honey Boo Boo. I hadn't thought about the book when I was writing this, but it's amazing how well some of McCarthy's chapters align with the themes in the clip. Part of the appeal of both of these artifacts seems to be tied to a certain honesty in the way that the women talk about pregnancy, which raises interesting questions about class and power (and the kinds of "dirty" stories that "white trash" women get to tell). As you suggest, I do think there's something transgressive about the women of HBB and the humor they employ, which is part of what I find so pleasurable about the show. While I tend to see the potentially empowering nature of this transgressiveness in constant tension with the show's containment strategies, I'm certainly always rooting for the ladies to offset the balance.
Laughing: at or with?
Kirsten's case for HBB balances its ambiguity: are we laughing at the family or with the family? Or both? Maybe it's impossible to answer since the onscreen characters know they are performers. It's always already a fiction. And what is the nature of the transgression? Obviously against middle class propriety. But anyone who has lived in close quarters as a family knows that basic body functions are known/referenced as part of common life. We just choose to ignore it or repress it most of the time. Or it becomes almost a sleight of hand. Does the baby need a diaper change? A pair of parents can make that determination and indicate who will do the change without missing a beat in front of guests. What's different here is that it's articulated in verbal and body language.
Re: Laughing at or with?
Kirsten, Thanks for the great post. For you or others who are familiar with the show: I'd love to hear more about your take on the intersection of class and gender here. Thinking in terms of other recent comedic representations of lower class femininity (My Name is Earl and Raising Hope), it seems like the "white trash" woman or girl is typically positioned outside the norms of (middle class) femininity? Are lower class women ever framed as "ladylike" and if not, does that affect the potency of the gender challenge? And do we need to take into account the beauty pageant activities of the family? I'm afraid I don't know enough about the show to know how Alana's pageant participation is framed.
The Effective Conflation of Race with Class
The media’s widespread and, to my mind, oddly celebratory characterization of Honey Boo Boo as “white trash entertainment” warrants some consideration. By putting the qualifier “white” in front of the word “trash,” such a description is clearly differentiating HBB’s particular form of “trash” from the more typical or expected form of “trash.” This distinction is a racial one, and it implies that what makes HBB different, noteworthy, truly funny, is that it is white folks (as opposed to brown folks) acting, well, “trashy.” Accordingly, the humor and potential pleasure derived from watching HBB is presented as originating within an anomaly of race: a white family that does not know how to perform their whiteness quite “right,” and instead acts like a (trashy) brown family. Along with the obvious reifying of racist stereotypes, this labeling of HBB and similar representations as “white trash entertainment” mistakes class for race. Such confusion is common in the media and integral to the way we conceptualize and perpetuate racial hierarchies and white privilege in the US generally. The problem isn’t that various distinctions between race and class are terribly tricky or difficult to discern, but rather that this obfuscation and confusion has been an effective way to naturalize gross systemic inequities that any truly civil and just society would otherwise address. In short, the social construction of race provides poverty with an alibi. An example: here in Los Angeles there are several poor communities where crime is rampant, schools are failing, infrastructure is crumbling, and jobs—like fresh and healthy food—are nearly nonexistent. These circumstances are a result of poverty, yet, because these communities comprise mainly people of color, the problem is typically discussed as one of race. When we shift the blame from class, or poverty, to race, we create a faulty cause and effect relationship. Through this faulty logic race becomes the cause of failing communities, families and individuals; it is transformed into the root of violence and the origins of school drop out rates; and, it offers an easy explanation for every manner of health-related problem present in these communities from obesity to high infant mortality. The fact that such faulty logic is applied only to poor communities of color makes the problem even worse. We do not discuss wealthy communities in terms of their more-often-than-not homogenous racialized makeup. These communities—whether primarily brown or white—are simply wealthy communities; they remain unmarked, or, as Roland Barthes puts it, “exnominated.” This is biological essentialism at its worst: poor communities of color fail because they are communities of color, and the social fictions of racial categorizations are transformed into biological destinies. But back to Honey Boo Boo. By characterizing representations such as Honey Boo Boo as, “white trash entertainment,” we fortify and extend a system of relative racial privilege that inherently positions whiteness as culturally and socially superior to brownness. And, by mistaking class for race we avoid recognizing the pervasive effects of poverty as they play out on the bodies and in the lives of individuals regardless of skin color.
HBB's Representational Politics
Thanks for your comments, Chuck, Kim, & Karyl! You've raised many good points here about performance, class, and race--all of which deserve further study and rightly highlight how gender is always implicated within a broader nexus of identity politics, representational practices, and systems of power. In addition to race and class, we might add to the list considerations of ethnicity, regional/national identity, homosexuality, and masculinity, as all of these things are at play in the show and shape its gendered discourses. After all, in the series' season finale, the coaching expertise of Alana's gay Uncle Lee helps the youngster win the "People's Choice" award at the Miss Sparkle & Shine Pageant--one of her biggest prizes to date--when female pageant and etiquette coaches fail throughout the season. Hollis Griffin and Andrew Scahill have both written thoughtful FLOW posts about the politics of representation in Toddlers & Tiaras and HBB, respectively. And a couple of books that further explore popular constructions of "white trashness" include White Trash: Race and Class in America, edited by Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz, and Affirmative Reaction: New Formations of White Masculinity, by Hamilton Carroll. And the discussion continues ...
Depictions of Pregnancy
Going back to the potential for transgression in HBB, I want to speculate that part of that potential comes from its status as a "reality" show. I don't know HBB or watch much reality TV, and I know that kind of show is still scripted or shaped to a certain extent, especially by the kind of containment editing strategies people have already mentioned. But I get very frustrated with depictions of pregnancy and childbirth on scripted television (especially comedies) because of the rigidity with which they all follow the same narratives and cliches: certain pregnancy "symptoms" or complications make it to TV and others don't, TV parents all have the same fights and worries, TV births all seem to follow the same progression and timeline. I wonder if reality shows featuring pregnant women (including 16 and Pregnant, etc.) necessarily break out of those patterns by featuring real pregnancies and births in all their variety and messiness. Maybe others more familiar with these shows can comment?
Add new comment